Career story: why I decided to leave corporate for now

This post is to share some of the key factors influencing my recent career change from a corporate job in finance to direct work in one of the priority paths. Hopefully this could help those who are in similar positions become less hesitant to make a change.

Background

I made the Giving What We Can Pledge one year ago on my birthday, and now I’m making a career change to join The Centre for Effective Altruism. I’ve been building the community in Hong Kong since 2019 while I was an undergraduate student and have worked at a corporate job in finance after graduation in 2021.

The change in a nutshell

Changes are not easy, especially if it is someone’s career. There will often be some negatives pushing them away from their current positions, and perceived positives pulling them towards something new. As days go by, we find ourselves at the crossroads: with the right signs, we make a turn.

The comfort zone

The company I was working for seemed perfect to me when I started:

  • I worked on a popular cause—climate change: my core responsibility was renewable energy data management, to provide clients with accurate and timely data.

  • Decent pay, excellent benefits, and great culture: the company donates more than 90% of its net profits to selected charities via its philanthropic arm. The donation matching and employee volunteering programs are generous and fun.

  • Stable business and clear career path: the company almost dominates the market share among its peers and the corporate ladder is fairly accessible to those who work hard.

My intended ways to impact consisted of the following:

  • Learn about climate change as much as possible to accumulate career capital.

  • Donate a portion of my income to highly effective charities, committing to the pledge I made.

  • Work on community building on the side, including the Hong Kong community and a new workplace group I just started at the company.

The pushes

Not surprisingly, the excitement of my first full-time job faded rather quickly as I started to see the flip side of things.

  • I was mainly tasked with data management rather than actually learning about domain knowledge. The learning curve tapered off soon and I did not obtain the knowledge that I deemed important. I realized that not every skill contributes equally to my career capital; those in line with the long-term career plan should be prioritized.

  • It was great to see one or two highly impactful charities appear in the company’s charity partner list, which is a prerequisite for donation matching. However, many notably ineffective ones also exist that could compete for limited resources. Also, I would not describe my approach as “earning to give” because my salary could not match the level of a quant trader or software engineer. So my impact via donation was quite insignificant.[1]

  • I could have probably worked for the company until I retired, enjoying the abundant pantry snacks and employee perks. But these nonessential personal material gains often made me feel guilty of not even trying to help the bottom billion, but rather reaping the benefits of income inequality.

I started to question myself: “is this really the best choice to have a positive impact on the world?” Driven by this, I spent an increasing amount of time consuming EA content and working on EA Hong Kong outside of my full-time job. This gradually became unsustainable since I felt there was so much more I could do, but very little time and energy available.

The pulls

It was an email invitation that started my EA job hunting. There was this all-expenses-paid visiting fellows program to the San Francisco Bay area to meet people in the core of the longtermist community. Two things caught my eye:

  • The primary organizer wrote: “I believe that the people invited have the potential to meaningfully move the needle on whether human civilization comes out of this century or not.

  • I was the only person in the invitee list that was based in Asia.[2]

I was humbled and intrigued by the opportunity. And yet I was hesitant and confused at the same time: would it be worthwhile to travel in the middle of a pandemic and go through a tough quarantine that could use up my annual leave? Having never seriously considered switching careers, somehow I gave in to the inertia and decided not to go. Nevertheless, I felt the loss of not going: missing out on information that longtermism is more than just an idea, networks of smart and ambitious people, motivations to shoot for the moon, even professional positions to work on safeguarding the future of humanity full time. This loss stuck with me because I chose the comfort zone over what might be really important to my long-term career plan. To possibly make up for this loss, I started to monitor the 80000 Hours job board closely, looking for potential opportunities.

The signs

Suddenly news broke that a friend I met in university whom I considered as a role model, was unfortunately shot and killed in Chicago. I was at work when I received this message and I felt paralyzed for the rest of that day. We studied the same major, joined the same research fellowship, and shared the urge to help others. I still have his voice messages about career advice on my phone. What amazed me the most back in university was the future he envisioned: he gave up a lucrative job at a top investment bank to pursue a research path in statistics. He said in that way he could add more values to the society and help more people. Thoughts like that were rare among my peers.

We do not have full control over our lives. I feel heartbroken to see his dreams unfulfilled, his future erased, and a precious life lost. It might be helpful to realize the probability of our lives ending in the next second is close to and yet greater than zero. Part of the reason I signed the donation pledge was to make my life more “robust” in the sense that a fair amount of good has been done before the end of it, whenever that might be.

Yet, so far, my way to robustify has been in the form of monthly donations and community building in the limited hours after work. What about my most productive hours during weekdays?

Soon I clicked “Apply”.

Thank you for offering me the signs, my friend: the sign that it is time for a change, the sign that I need to act as soon as possible while I still have the chance, the sign that I own my life. May you rest in peace.

Connecting the dots

As a community builder myself, I understand that my career change would not have been possible without other community builders’ effort of educating me about the ideas, sharing with me the opportunities, and making me feel at home. This is especially needed for regions where EA/​longtermism/​global priorities research ideas are underrepresented.

People situated outside of hubs such as Oxford or the Bay Area might not choose to work on priority paths because they do not see many people are already working on them. It is simply not the norm and human nature makes it hard to turn against the norm. Hence, it is important that community builders connect those promising individuals and cultivate the sense that we are all in this together. Once successful homegrown examples of high-impact donations or careers emerge, they will reinforce the community growth and redefine the norm.

This is what I sense is happening in the Greater China region. There is a growing number of people dedicated to doing the most good on the intersection of China and global priorities, and Chinese translations of relevant materials as well: Human Compatible (AI新生), The Precipice (危崖), Animal Liberation (动物解放), The Most Good You Can Do (行最大的善), WeChat articles from Charity Box (益盒), etc.

These are the dots that are getting connected by people who are considering making a career change. They know friends who are working on priority paths; they read relevant materials in their home language; they wonder how they could increase their expected impact; they get invites to high-quality events for continuous engagements. One day when the right signs show, they may make a turn at the crossroads.

I acknowledge that getting hired by an organization within the ecosystem is hard. But the determination to apply is the first step, which this post aims to address. I find this article particularly useful for people in rather generalist jobs, such as management consulting, investment banking, corporate law and professional services, to consider directly entering priority paths.

I would like to thank Kenneth Chan, Dailin Gan, Ziya Huang, Winky Leong, and Maggie Xue for the valuable feedback to the draft.

Appendix: my pledge sharing one year ago

To celebrate my birthday and upcoming graduation, I signed the Giving What We Can Pledge.

Among many reasons why we should donate money to charity, I feel deeply inspired by Peter Singer’s quote: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it”. Reflecting on my past, I see privileges, such as being born by chance into a country that has ended extreme poverty and is free of malaria, a life-threatening illness that affects hundreds of millions of people per year. I can contribute to the global project of eliminating this disease by purchasing insecticide-treated nets at a surprisingly low price. And I can do so with insignificant cost to my personal life.

Why take a giving pledge when you could just donate? The idea, as formulated by the Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, is that sharing it with others like you, dear readers, makes it more costly for my future self to give up on my goals. I know it may not always be easy, but joining a community of 5500+ inspiring people with over $222 million donated and $2.2 billion pledged so far makes me feel less alone.

My peers (university students/​new graduates) may think that I made this decision prematurely. The suggested amount to donate indeed depends on personal circumstances and I have since paid more attention to my personal finances (i.e. working out what proportions of my income go to consumption/​saving/​investment/​donations). One thing I know for sure is that I would have regrets if I died having not done good when I could. This prompts me to smooth my donations over a lifetime to mitigate the risk of not doing enough good when I am alive. Last but not least, I think taking a pledge before graduation has some advantages. Say if I pledge 10%, upon graduation my income would go from 0% to 90%, which feels more psychologically comfortable than a 100%-to-90% deduction if I donate after working for some time (due to loss aversion).

I am grateful to those whom I had conversations with regarding this meaningful decision and I encourage others to at least consider it, too.

  1. ^

    Note that small donors can still have a significant impact, just that my answer to “what’s the best thing I can do with the resources I (actually) have?” differs from my approach back then.

  2. ^

    Disclaimer quoting the organizers on “Why was I invited and other people weren’t?”: The invite list was mostly generated by them remembering various conversations they’ve had with people, asking some people for references, and generally making their best guess at what kind of group would make a good composition for an event like this. They acknowledged the chance of missing a bunch of good people and welcomed references.